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'The Boys of '36' Recalls the U.S. Rowers of a Controversial Olympics
August 2, 2016  | By David Hinckley

Before “The Boys in the Boat” came along, some folks might have thought the only feel-good story for Americans in the 1936 Olympics was Jesse Owens.

Not so. Americans had other moments of exuberance, notably including the gold medal victory of the University of Washington’s eight-man rowing team.

The members of that team, Depression-era kids who refused to quit in either rowing or in life, were the Boys in the Boat. Their story has deservedly become a best-selling book, written by Daniel James Brown, and now PBS’s American Experience recounts the story in a television documentary, Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

Because the documentary is only an hour long, it’s necessarily a condensed version of the story. But its straightforward, fast-moving style enables it to cover all the important points, and just as importantly, capture the timeless thrill of everyday people achieving a goal through sheer perseverance and hard work.

It sounds like a real-life Rocky story and, in a lot of ways, that’s what it is.

The University of Washington just happened to draw a particularly talented group of rowers in the mid-1930s. They were Pacific Northwest teenagers who had grown up not rowing, but just doing hard physical work like lumberjacking.

Joe Rantz had perhaps the most striking story. When he was 15, his family packed up the car and left, telling him he was old enough to take care of himself. For two years he did: hunting and fishing for his food and earning money by selling illegal alcohol.

He also somehow stayed in school and, like most of his fellow rowers, he was just happy to be in college at all. The fact they happened to form a world-class rowing team was a nice bonus.

In their early years, there was some tension with upperclassmen, which led them to underperform in national competitions.

By 1936, however, they had worked it out and come together, which enabled them to beat traditional rowing powers and qualify for the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

That quest forms the second drama for the “Boys in the Boat” -- its second drama, though, in truth, it’s less remarkable than the stories of how they got to the boat in the first place.

We learn that the Washington team’s strategy was to stay close for the first three-quarters of a race, then shift into high gear and blow past the competition. They did this in the collegiate finals, in the Olympic trials and finally in Berlin itself, where they held off the Italians and the Germans to win.

The fact that German Chancellor Adolf Hitler really wanted the German boat to win made the victory sweeter then, and it remains no less so today.

The “Boys in the Boat” probably won’t eclipse Jesse Owens and his track medals as the shining symbol of Berlin ’36. But they’re a stirring feel-good story done solid justice by American Experience.

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